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Memorial Gets a Rocky Reception

Protesters turn up for groundbreaking of veterans monument in West Hollywood, where some are angered by military policy on gays.

March 01, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

As protesters questioned the propriety of it all, construction began Friday on a military monument in an unexpected place: outside one of West Hollywood's first gay-rights battlefields.

The memorial to veterans will be built alongside Santa Monica Boulevard in front of Barney's Beanery restaurant, where the first civil-rights skirmish in the city, which has a large gay population, was fought decades ago. The city places the cost of the project at $463,470, though some protesters say the price tag would be four times that high if the value of the land were added.

Demonstrators at the groundbreaking ceremony complained that the military's ban on homosexuals and its "don't ask, don't tell" policy are insults to the gay community, and that the project is a waste of scarce local resources.

"What about the war on AIDS?" one demonstrator shouted as Mayor Sal Guarriello led a ceremonial groundbreaking. "You're digging the graves for all the people who need the money with social services being cut."

Guarriello has struggled for five years to build the memorial. He shrugged off Friday's criticism.

If it weren't for this nation's military veterans, "they wouldn't have the freedom that anyone can express whatever they want to express," Guarriello said, referring to eight placard-bearing protesters standing behind him.

"In World War II, combat medics like me were gay. They were my buddies. Gay people were fighting just like all of us," said Guarriello, who served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946 and is the only West Hollywood City Council member who is not gay.

The memorial will include four flagpoles, a row of shields to commemorate the five branches of the U.S. armed forces, poetry about war and sacrifice etched in concrete, and a dedication plaque. It will be placed on a triangular piece of city-owned land at the intersection of Holloway Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard.

The site is directly in front of Barney's Beanery, a boulevard fixture since the 1920s. The colorful restaurant and bar was once famous for an interior sign and matchbook covers that contained a slur against gays and told them to "Stay Out."

That slogan helped prompt a 1985 West Hollywood city ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals. Operators of the restaurant finally agreed to take down the sign and toss out the matchbooks after being threatened with a $500-a-day municipal fine.

"I think it's a very strong statement in the face of someplace like Barney's, that as gay and lesbian veterans and people, we will not be intimidated by the outrageous policy [toward gays] of the federal government and Defense Department," said City Councilman Jeffrey Prang, a supporter of the memorial.

"We're not putting up a memorial for an institution that discriminates. We're honoring the veterans who live in our community."

Russian army veteran Efim Kutz, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who has lived 26 years in West Hollywood, said he counts himself in that group. "Today's a great day not only for American veterans, but for the Russian veterans who worked arm-by-arm in wartime," he said.

Other locals were not pleased by the project, which will be partially paid for by donations. "We can't even get a library off the ground. It's just too much to spend at this time for this," said Charlotte Banta, a 50-year resident.

Added Jim Kingslan, a screenwriter who has lived 11 years in West Hollywood: "This glorifies an institution that will not accept our existence. I'd have no problem with a simple plaque. But a massive monument -- that's what we have Washington, D.C., for."

City Councilman Steve Martin, an opponent of the project who watched the groundbreaking, said the land could have been turned into a grassy park at no additional cost to the city as part of a recent street-beautification project for Santa Monica Boulevard.

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